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How To Stretch Before a Workout
The best stretching exercises from top trainers.
Before you bake a cake, you have to preheat the oven. Before your car can cruise on the freeway, you have to drive it there first. So it makes sense that before you go full blast on a workout, you have to warm up your body.
Taking things from cold to hot too quickly is never a good idea. When it comes to your body, skipping a warm-up before a workout could result in torn muscles, increased stiffness, reduced mobility and a serious risk of injury. Rather than think about warming up as an unnecessary step that adds time to your workout, imagine it as a crucial part of your exercise routine.
A warm-up could include light walking, jogging or biking at low intensity for five to ten minutes. Once your muscles are warm, most trainers recommend stretching before getting into your actual workout. “A warm-up before the stretching period increases blood flow and prepares our muscles to be manipulated,” says personal trainer Regi Drake.
But which stretches are best to do before a workout? And should you stretch every day? Read on to get the scoop on your pre-workout stretch.
Always Consider the Workout
Some of us are runners, others are cyclists and many more prefer weights to cardio. So should we all be doing the same pre-workout stretches? No, according to Drake. “It’s important to tune in to the exercises in your session,” he says. “For example, a powerlifter working on their squat may work through some dynamic stretches that prepare the body for load bearing, but they would also emphasize stretches for their lower body like hips, quads and hamstrings. By doing this, muscles are introduced to the type of movement they can expect that day, sending bits of feedback to the nervous system before getting into the workload.”
One of the most important benefits of stretching before a workout is that it gives you a more complete range of motion, no matter what exercise you’re doing. “Stretching before a workout loosens tight muscles so we can be more flexible,” says personal trainer and bootcamp coach Megan Knight. “When muscles are tight, you see faulty movement patterns that can lead to injury. Your body can’t reach full range of motion if the muscles are hindering that pattern.”
Dynamic Vs. Static Stretching
There are two kinds of stretches: Dynamic, which allows the muscles and joints to focus on mobility, and Static, when the muscles and joints are held for a period of time. Each type of stretching has its place in one’s exercise routine, but when it comes to stretching before a workout, it’s best to stick to Dynamic stretching and save Static stretching for a post-workout cooldown.
“Stretch as long as you need before a workout,” says Knight. “If you’re working with injured muscle tissue or trying to correct an injury, you’re going to need to stretch for longer than you would if you were feeling great that day. What it comes down to is listening to your body and being honest with what it needs. And always make sure to hold your stretches for 15 to 60 seconds.”
Drake says one of the biggest mistakes people make when stretching before a workout is that they rush to get to the main event (or don’t stretch at all). “The reality is, our muscles need attention before we can improve them,” he says. “A solid plan would be to treat your stretching similarly to how you treat your workout: give it your full attention and commit to it equally.”
That being said, you don’t need to stretch every day. The body thrives on periods of rest. Bringing it back to its natural state will give muscles the chance to fully recover. Just as it’s important not to ignore stretching, it’s similarly important not to ignore recovery days. They are just as crucial to overall health as the best workouts.
Know What’s Prone to Tightness
While it’s great to stretch the entire body before a workout, you’ll be more strategic if you focus on the muscle groups that tend to get the tightest. These include the lower back, hip flexors and upper trapezius (basically, your neck area). “Most of us have a tendency to close our bodies when we sit by curving through our back, rolling our shoulders forward and putting our head forward and down,” says Drake. “This causes unnecessary stress to form in the neck and lower back because our spine is not in its natural alignment. With the hips, it could be a multitude of things, such as sitting or standing for long periods of time, or favoring one side when you sleep or lean. These issues arise particularly with people who have jobs where they sit for most of the day, or people who constantly look down at their phones.”
So if you’re someone who stares at their phone most of the day (and, honestly, isn’t that all of us?), pay extra attention to stretching before a workout. We also can’t talk about stretching without talking about form. Proper form reduces the risk of injury and maximizes results. Look online for guides outlining proper form or Drake recommends getting more information from Certified Personal Trainers and Fitness Foundations (like NASM, NFPT, ACE or ACSM).
Once you’ve warmed up for five to ten minutes, you’re ready to start stretching before your workout. One of Knight’s favorite stretches to do before a workout is something that focuses on elongating the hip flexor complex. She also loves a dynamic quad stretch, especially for cyclists or people who like to spin. Finally, a simple cat-cow stretch will help lubricate the back muscles and joints, preparing you for any workout.